A non-profit political organization using the moniker of House leaders Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, and Paul Ryan is coming under fire for its support of defeated Indiana senator Dick Lugar.
The Young Guns Network, often referred to as the YG Network, spent over $100,000 trying to prop up Lugar in his bid to fend off conservative upstart Richard Mourdock.
“There is a certain irony in a group called the ‘Young Guns’ supporting an octogenarian running for an unprecedented seventh term,” says Matt Kibbe, the president of FreedomWorks, an influential conservative advocacy group. “It’s clear that Cantor and the establishment-Republican leadership are fighting to protect incumbents they know will not challenge their orders.”
The YG Network, though not officially tied to the House leaders, uses the “Young Guns” imprimatur, a phrase inspired by the title of the trio’s 2010 paperback. That book, Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders, was published before the midterms and generated significant attention, and made Cantor, McCarthy, and Ryan media sensations.
The lawmakers’ relationship with the outfit is complicated. By law, the three congressmen cannot be involved with the strategy or operation of the YG Network, a 501(c)4 group that was founded by John Murray and Rob Collins, two Republican consultants who previously worked for Cantor on Capitol Hill. But that hasn’t stopped conservatives from asking whether the ties are too close for comfort.
Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a top ally of Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, tells National Review Online that he’s not surprised by the post-primary questions. “It’s certainly not the call I would have made,” he says of the support for Lugar. But he cautions political observers not to assume that the three congressmen have any involvement with the YG Network.
“Most folks who support [YG Network] probably think that their donations are going toward supporting the House majority, and that money should be,” Cole says. “They probably don’t think that money is going into Senate races. But the super-PAC phenomenon has changed the rules, and because they can’t legally coordinate, there are issues.”
Several House Republican aides, speaking with NRO, are also skeptical about whether the YG Network — which is associated with the YG Action Fund, a 501(c)3 group focused on congressional races — accurately represents the positions of Cantor, McCarthy, and Ryan.
There are also varying levels of comfort with the YG Network’s management and its potential to cause unrest for Republican leaders.
“There is some confusion about what they’re doing,” says one House Republican staffer familiar with the three legislators. “The super PACs supposedly are disconnected from what’s happening on the Hill, but that doesn’t always seem to be the case, and they have made some mistakes.”
Another Republican aide, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive relationships between leadership offices, believes that the YG Network’s pro-Lugar ad buy was a “strange call.” The framing of the primary as a battle of energy ideas was also seen as odd, and driven, perhaps, more by the interests of the YG operatives than by House GOP policy.
One Lugar mailer produced by the YG Network, for example, highlighted the senator’s support for ethanol. “Lugar,” the ad reads, would support “a smart energy policy,” unlike the “extreme” Mourdock.
Sources close to the YG Network swat away the idea that Lugar’s support for ethanol subsidies was a driving factor in their decision to back the incumbent, and instead point to Lugar’s longtime reputation as a “green Republican” as a prime reason to support his reelection.
The YG Network, sources close to it say, pushed ethanol in the Lugar mailer because of a statewide survey it posed to Indiana voters about which issues are most important to them. Since Lugar’s position on ethanol drew positive reviews, it was an easy decision to play up that theme.
Cantor’s congressional office, when asked about the YG Network’s focus on ethanol, did not endorse the group’s ethanol statements in the Lugar mailer, but they also did not disavow the YG Network or the YG Action Fund.
“He isn’t aware of any position the YG Network has regarding ethanol and it isn’t an issue he is particularly focused on,” said Laena Fallon, Cantor’s spokesperson, in a statement. More broadly, she said, “Leader Cantor is supportive of efforts to retain and expand the GOP majority and promote pro-growth economic policies.”
Sources sympathetic to the YG Network point out that the group wasn’t alone in its support of Lugar. The United States Chamber of Commerce and the American Action Network, two leading national conservative groups, backed Lugar with big-dollar ad buys and mailers.
These arguments, however, haven’t quieted the critics. Within the conservative blogosphere, activists believe that regardless of the legal barriers between the congressmen and the YG Network, the fingerprints of the House leaders are evident. “Lugar is getting help from the so-called conservative ‘Young Guns,’” Mourdock mused in a conference call last week. “There’s a disconnect there that I’m not understanding.”
Former New York congressman Tom Reynolds, who once led the National Republican Congressional Committee, predicts that Cantor, Ryan, and McCarthy may continue to suffer “blowback” from the Lugar episode, unless they quickly and convincingly distance themselves.
“In politics, perception is the rule and it carries consequences,” Reynolds says. “These three leaders are closely identified with this group, even though it’s an independent entity, doing its own work.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.
Editor’s Note: This article has been amended since its original posting.